History of Walnut Grove Lake
By Audrey Grehl, Chairwoman History Committee 1993-1994 and updated by Jeanie Velarde, 2007
In 1958, when partners Carl Jacobson and Lloyd Lovitt, dba Jacobson and Lovitt, were asked to take shares in a partnership controlling 850 acres of farmland in Shelby County along Raleigh-LaGrange Road, one mile east of Germantown Road, they declined. A Memphis City map of 1958 shows Walnut Grove Road ended just east of White Station Road. Access to the land was either by traveling east on RaleighLaGrange Road, in the north of the county, or east on Poplar Avenue, north on Germantown Road, then east on Raleigh-LaGrange Road.
In 1962, with Walnut Grove Road nearing completion through the Shelby County Penal Farm to Germantown Road, and 1-240 nearing completion around the city, Jacobson and Lovitt decided to join the holding company, known as Northeast Shelby Corporation as the developer of the land. Even then, it took a bit of imagination to see this as a place people would want to live. There had been no residential development of any kind in the area and there were no utilities available. This was tenant farmland and woods, with the Wolf River to the south. This was out in the middle of nowhere!
However, Lovitt and his wife spent much time walking over the rolling hills with their boxer and spotted a natural bowl in the terrain. As a native Memphian, with a degree in engineering from Cornell University, he formed the opinion that a lake could be created which would be very attractive to buyers, as the focus of a water sports oriented community, a concept generally felt to be 20 to 30 years ahead of the times.
In 1963, Pickering, Wooten, Smith and Weiss, a Memphis firm specializing in lake design, was hired to make a study to determine the feasibility of constructing a dam to create a lake. Kellogg, Dean of the School of Engineering at Ole' Miss, was a consultant. No copy of that report has been available, but the following information is contained in a 1966 speech given by Lloyd Lovitt to the Society of Civil Engineers. "Their opinion was that it was indeed possible, the cost would be reasonable and that the natural topography lends itself to a beautiful lake, with wonderful building sites around the shoreline."
Construction on the site was begun in the summer of 1963. When borings were made to determine the nature of soil in the area of the proposed dam, a considerable strata of gravel was found just 5-6 feet below the natural grade. (Not too surprising, since gravel had been mined for years on the Pierce property to the south.) If the common type of earthen dam were to be constructed, the pressure of the water in the resulting lake would be forced through the overburden down into the gravel. The gravel would not stop the flow of water, but permit it to run freely under the dam. In other words, the dam would not hold water. (There were several small springs throughout the area and a small stream ran across the land in the area of what would be Lot # 13 near the intersection of Viking Drive and Viking Cove. These were not sufficient to fill a lake which would be mainly rain catch.)
It was decided the best and cheapest way to solve the problem was to create a key trench under the dam. As luck had it, the Cornese Terminal Company of California was just completing a job for the Georgia Pacific Plywood Co. in Crosset, Arkansas using material called Bentonite. Bentonite is a white colloidal clay used in oil drilling operations to keep water and other fluids out of the well hole. As the Cornese personnel and machinery were already in the area, they were hired to dig a trench through the center of the dam site, similar to a deep sewer ditch. This 30 foot trench was then filled with Bentonite slurry, and the earthen dam constructed above it. Dam work was completed in 1964 and so Walnut Grove Lake came into being. The lake covers an area of approximately 42 acres. It is 3000 feet long and width varies from 400 to 1200 feet. At completion it was 24 feet deep at the dam, 5 feet deep at the north (Walnut Grove Road) end and the upper ends of the covers, the average depth being approximately 13 feet.
In 1964 work was begun on Section A of Walnut Grove Lake Subdivision, comprised of Lots 1 through 89 on the west side of the lake, fronting on Raleigh-LaGrange Road, Viking Drive, Oslo Cove, Viking Cove, Val Halla Cove and the head of Norseman. Prices of lakefront lots were from $8,000 to $9,000 and off-lake lots from $4,000 to $5,000. Homes under construction ranged from $20,000 to $50,000 including the lot. Two lakefront lots were designated as parks for common use by all homeowners. Streets were laid out following the terrain around the lake and coves, ensuring a unique aspect, which proved to be a major attraction to builders and buyers described as "independent thinkers." Significantly, a number of architects and builders have built their own homes here. Carl Jacobson's pride in his Norwegian ancestry is reflected in the names given the streets and the style of the model home built on Lot 11 (50 Viking Drive) in 1965.
With the model home under construction and the lake filling with the rains, a difficulty arose. With no existing sewer lines in the area, a self-contained system of pipes with an attendant lagoon dug out behind the dam was being installed. The pipes connecting the homes to the lagoon were to be laid under water around the edges of the lake, which now would mean working in as much as 20 feet of water. The danger of such work was too great and the only solution was to open the flood gate and drain 6' to 8' of water. Work was completed in August 1965 and with the lake half full, sales were begun. A beautiful color brochure describes "relaxed holiday living year 'round." A sandy beach was planned and large piles of sand were delivered, only to be washed into the lake during heavy rains. The "holiday living" was to pose a problem. Some mortgage companies interpreted this as "resort" and were reluctant to finance building. It slowed sales for a few years and later Lloyd Lovitt would describe this as "a recreation subdivision, one for permanent homes that also provides recreational facilities within itself,” which seems an accurate description. Architect Bob Goforth came to view the land for a client. The client didn't buy, but Bob and his wife Bobbie had found the place for them. They bought 2 lots on the lake and had to wait for the fall rains to refill the lake before they knew where their shoreline would be.
Walnut Grove Lake Association, Inc. was incorporated as developing agency and to maintain the lake, dam site and common areas, which would be held in trust for the lot owners until completion of the subdivision. Upon completion, these would become the property and responsibility of the lot owners. The lake was stocked with breem, bass and channel catfish. A boat ramp and dock were built at the park on Lot 91 (Simpson Park). In 1966, 25 lots had been sold and three more houses were under construction. The first of these was completed on Lot 20, 93 Viking Cove, and in August 1966, Elmer and Wendy Simpson became the first "settlers." In January 1967 they were joined by Tom and Leota Guthrie, whose home was across the cove on Lot 17. Joe and Evelyn Wimmer built their home way up by the dam on Lot 55.
The model home was sold, but the buyer found he was allergic to the lake, and they only lived there three months. That was good fortune for Jack and Carol Fulton, who finally found a company to finance it, and they live there still. Also in 1966 Carl (Jake) Jacobson and Elmer Simpson brought some Mallard ducklings to the lake. The Simpsons penned them in their back yard and cared for them until they were old enough to release on the lake. These were the ancestors of the sizable flock that still flourishes on the lake. Well they might, since many residents hand feed them cracked corn. Some have been tame enough to pick up and will come pecking at your door if you miss regular feeding times. (Later the Ladies Club erected "Duck Crossing" signs on Viking Drive, but they proved too popular with thieves.) The geese were another matter. Starting with three who set down on the lake during fall migration, they too found the pickings good, stayed and were joined by others. Nature took its course and we wound up with lots of geese, to the chagrin of some and the detriment of the lake water.
The term "settlers" is an apt one for the early residents. Their stories are interesting and suggest the need for a certain sense of adventure. Most were attracted by the very remoteness, the peace and beauty of the terrain and the abundance of wildlife. They often speak first of the red fox in the front yard or the deer in the early morning at the treeline of the river. They sought, and found, a different style of home and living. They also had to deal with some difficulties of being "first out."
Germantown was a small enclave about three miles to the south, without stores or services. Cordova, to the north, was even smaller. Walnut Grove Road stopped at Germantown Road, so you made a jog north to Raleigh-LaGrange Road and then east. The utilities supplied to the lake were a patched together affair. Memphis supplied gas and electricity, water came from Ellendale, telephone services from Germantown, which also reluctantly supplied fire protection until they tired of false alarms and Shelby County Fire Department had to take over. Shelby County Sheriffs were the protectors. There was no garbage pickup. Residents used an existing informal dump shared by tenant farms on land that became Walnut Bend Road. The nearest pharmacy and grocery stores were at Poplar and Mendenhall Roads. You made sure your car gas tank was full before leaving the city. You also picked up the daily paper on the way home until there were about a dozen homes, after that the papers were dropped at the entrance to Viking Drive for you to retrieve. Schools were a problem. You either bounced around - 6th grade Germantown - or, like many, you paid to take them in to White Station schools. In spite of all, they came, and a remarkable number of original owners are still living here. They built a real community and we are still enjoying what they started. Many of the children of the early settlers have also returned to buy homes of their own at the lake. The park on Lot 91 was eventually named Simpson Park to honor the first residents.
Those early years had few houses and none on the east side of the lake where the neighbors would chase away "hippies" who had dropped a rope from a tree and would swing out - nude - for an evening swim.
Residents began very soon to organize "lake" events. The first Halloween party was held at the Wimmers in 1968. In 1969 Tom Dutcher, who owned a security systems company, offered to supply fireworks at cost and the qualified person to fire them, for a display that became the centerpiece of an annual 4th of July celebration until the lake was so built up it became dangerous. Everyone got into the spirit. In 1976 we had a Centennial parade with Bob as the drummer, Tom Albin as the fifer and Chuck Arbuckle or Dick Bevier with the flag, dressed as the patriots. They led a parade of decorated floats, cars, bikes and scooters around the neighborhood.
The ladies formed the Valkyrie Club in 1970. They took excursions, invited speakers to their meetings, acted as a "Welcome Wagon" for the area and sponsored fund-raising activities. It is they who provided playground equipment for the park, among other things, and got their husbands and friends to donate labor and equipment for the projects.
Since there was little development around us, every holiday was special for the kids and families. The women made pumpkin flags on black denim to hang beneath Halloween mailboxes. We all had yards that needed trimming so everyone brought their branches and yard trim and lit a huge bonfire on Halloween at the park for our get-together. One year the Great Pumpkin arrived on a raft wearing a 4 or 5 ft. pumpkin head and delivered candy to the kids. We later had spook houses and carnivals and even "Jaws" the giant shark made by the Arbuckles slipped out from the dock at the dam to scare the kids...and their parents.
The Walnut Grove Lake Civic Association was formed February 13, 1972 to encourage community activities and to act as a liaison with Lloyd Lovitt on matters concerning development and maintenance of the properties. Membership was purely voluntary. They had their own officers and collected their own dues to finance community activities and they had no function in the business of the corporation. For many years they were the only means of liaison with Mr. Lovitt when problems arose.
As I read through 20 years of Civic Association minutes, I gained some sense of how much is owed to some of these early residents. From the time Chuck and Mary Arbuckle came here in 1971, their names appear as spearheading and supporting everything that has been done here. Chuck has held several offices many times, and as interest in the club has waxed and waned, he has often been one of the few who maintained contact with Mr. Lovitt for the benefit of all. Dick and Pat Bevier have also served our mutual interests in many capacities. Their unfailing good sense and good humor continues to be of great benefit to the whole community. The list could go on and on. In some way practically everyone has had an impact, but these have been our mainstays.
According to copies of plats furnished by Lovitt Co., plans were approved by Memphis Shelby County Planning Commission for Section B, comprised of Lots 92 through 110 on October 16, 1969. These lots face on Walnut Grove Road, Mysen Circle and Mysen Cove. Plans approved for Section C, October 16, 1971, comprised of Lots 111 through 133, Mysen Circle and Karlstad Cove. Plans approved for Section D, October 16, 1969, comprised of Lots 134 through 163, Ericson Road and Ericson Cove. Plans approved for Section E, October 16, 1970, comprised of Lots 164 through 252, Ericson Road, Narvick Cove, Leif Cove, Arendal Cove and Bergen Cove. This plat designates Lot 212 as a park. Lots 206 and 207 were later designated Lots 348 and 349 to be a park. It was not until 1980 that lot 348 was developed as a park on the east side of the lake.
Later (date unknown) plans were approved for Section F1 and F2, Ericson Road, Bergen Drive, Thorgeson Cove, Loften Cove, Bazemore Road, Almstead Cove, Sherburne Cove and Rekston Cove.
In 1974 Walnut Grove Road was being extended beyond Germantown Road. It came straight across until it joined with the curve of Raleigh-LaGrange Road along the north side of the lake. The entire road was then named Walnut Grove Road.
Gradually stores and services were building in Germantown and the lake became even more attractive to all age groups. One whole family bought and built homes. John R. "Bob" Durschlag was building many fine contemporary homes in the area and eventually he and his wife Sue settled here. Friends visited friends, liked what they saw and came to stay. Through the Civic Association, all who wanted to, joined in the fun. A directory is published from time to time with residents' names, addresses and phone numbers.
The ladies on the east side formed their own club, The New Vinlanders, in 1974. They too raised funds and furnished equipment and labor for the east side park when it was completed, and helped organize social events.
Plans were filed (date unknown) for Section G (Walnut Bend) but this was not approved as a part of Walnut Grove Lake. Plans for Section H-1 were approved July 4, 1986, comprised of Lots H1 through H50, Norseman, Glen Gyle Cove, Byre Hollow Cove and Walnut Creek Road. Plans were also submitted for Sections H-2 and H-3 but these were not approved. Part of Cordova including all of Walnut Grove Lake except Section H-1 was annexed by the City of Memphis effective July 4, 1990. Section H-1 was eventually annexed in 2012.
In 1990, a developer from Atlanta took an option on the land from Germantown Parkway where Lowes now is located all the way to and including where the new section is on the east side. This developer wanted to build a million square foot shopping mall. Can you imagine a Wolfchase Mall below the dam? Walnut Grove Lake residents banded together with 11 other Cordova subdivisions, forming C.A.R.E. (Cordova Area Residents for the Environment), hired a lawyer and fought to defeat this idea. Fortunately we were successful.
The managing corporation for the lake was most often called Walnut Grove Lake Association, Inc. In one old set of Covenants the name is given as W.G. Lake Improvement Assoc., Inc. In the Covenants provided for Section H no name is given and no reference is made to the manner of governance. However, membership in Walnut Grove Lake Association, Inc. was mandatory and automatic with purchase of property in the subdivision. For that the name read Lloyd Lovitt. He was that corporation and any dealings with it were with him. The yearly assessment dues were paid to his governing corporation.
On March 23, 1993, having been informed the transfer of common properties was to be undertaken, the homeowners of Walnut Grove Lake met and formed a new corporation, Walnut Grove Lake Homeowners Association., Inc. A governing board of directors was elected to undertake negotiations for this transfer with Lloyd Lovitt and to assume management of the corporation. Henceforth all assessment dues would be collected by the Homeowners Association and all necessary expenditures would be made from those funds to maintain the lake, dam and parks and to administer the business of the corporation. The first order of business was to compile a uniform set of Covenants and By-laws governing all sections of the subdivision, with amendments reflecting the present status. This was done and the homeowners voted acceptance in November 1993. In June of 1996, after three long hard years of negotiations between the board of directors and Mr. Lovitt, an agreement was signed transferring all common properties to the homeowners.
In 1994, Jim and Andrea Farrell moved to the subdivision on Bazemore Road. Jim became active in the Homeowners Association, and volunteered much time and effort to our community. He was among the work day crews who worked at the parks or lake on weekends. He helped to install barbeque grills and was a regular at Sunday evening park cookouts. He was also instrumental in starting our current annual Fourth of July fireworks, He knew all the kids in the neighborhood and always went out of his way to do special things for them. Jim died unexpectedly in 1999, and subsequently the Association renamed the park on Bergen Drive, to honor Jim’s memory, as Farrell Park. The park was originally called New Vinlanders Park.
Plans were filed and approved (date unknown, 1999 or 2000) for Walnut Grove Lake First Addition, Lot 1 through Lot 79, Trondheim Drive, Trondheim Court, Lillehammer Cove, Tonstad Cove, Admunsen Cove and Kristiandsund Cove. The first home was sold in November 2001, and the last home was sold in May 2005.
In September 2005, Hope Presbyterian Church, located directly across the street from the lake, unveiled plans to build a 75’ high sanctuary with a 180’ bell tower right on Walnut Grove Road. This structure would have dominated our lake. Because the structure was taller than what is allowed in this zone by 4 stories, Hope sought and was granted a zoning variance. The Association decided to appeal this decision and hired an attorney to represent them. In April 2006, faced with a possible long legal battle and anxious to begin construction, Hope decided to redesign their plan to fit within zoning height restrictions and to relocate the new sanctuary behind and to the east of their existing building.
Lloyd Lovitt, the original developer of our neighborhood, died in 1999. In 2006, Walnut Grove, Ltd., Mr. Lovitt’s holding company, still owned the land to the west of us under the TVA and MLGW power lines, and 315 acres to the south between us and the Wolf River. Mrs. Jane Lovitt and Walnut Grove Ltd. donated the Wolf River land to the Memphis Garden Club who then gave it to the Wolf River Conservancy. They plan to protect this land from future development and will eventually have walking trails and a greenway that will stretch from downtown to the Shelby/Fayette County line. Mrs. Lovitt donated the TVA and MLGW land (22 acres) to us. On April 15, 2006, a dedication ceremony was held with Mrs. Lovitt in attendance. The land was named Lovitt Field. Plans are to develop hiking trails, but to otherwise leave the land much as it is.
In the last 50+ years since "The Lake" was begun, much has changed. Going from an isolated development "out in the sticks," to the present, when this is the middle of one of the fastest growing areas of Shelby County, obviously has had an impact. Due to the extraordinary length of time taken to develop the whole area, it would be difficult for the new residents to envision the beginnings. The one thing that remains constant is the belief of the majority that this is a great place to live. Hopefully, the sense of community will remain and grow. Our thanks are due to so many who brought it this far.